OPINION: Are we curious enough about fundraising?

Most fundraisers only know enough to get things done in their day jobs. Which is alright up to a point. But, argues Nigel Harris, fundraisers need to be more intellectually curious about the factors that influence and impact on their chosen profession.

We do fundraising. We manage campaigns. We measure costs. We plan. We ask. We thank. We seek information. We share information. We learn on the job. We learn from others. There are lots of things we do in fundraising. But what do we actually know? What informs what we do in fundraising? What shapes our broader understanding of what is happening to and around us, and because of us?

What do we question? What do we challenge? How are we curious? And what drives us beyond the things we do, and know?

Fundraising is a curious vocation. I don’t necessarily mean enquiring. More unusual, in the sense of what shapes the understanding of the work involved, the results accomplished and the perceptions that surround it. Fundraising is not what it seems, particularly from a distance. And that’s a challenge.

Getting a job in fundraising will not necessarily require you to know anything about what you need to do. Fair enough, everyone starts somewhere, and given that there is no vocational or tertiary education pathway into fundraising, it seems reasonable to start from a zero base. Although, that may depend on what level of job we are talking about.

But what are we required to learn along the way, as we continue our work in fundraising?

Well, nothing really. Nothing actually compels us to know anything. Just to do things.

Ok, so that may sound unreasonable. Of course, you need to know something to do something. 

“I have given too many presentations where references to established literature, existing research, and relatively common concepts are perceived as new information.”

The difference I am drawing out here is between knowing what to do as opposed to knowing why you are doing it. I’m talking about the deeper, underlying exploration of factors such as markets, behaviours and relationships, all central to understanding fundraising and philanthropy.

Why is this even a question? Surely, we all understand these things? Surely, we ask why? Don’t we?

Thirty-five years into this business and my experience and observations tell me something different. I have seen too many examples of work undertaken with every good intent and little underlying enquiry. I have been in too many conversations where the prevailing assumptions are accepted without contest. I have given too many presentations where references to established literature, existing research, and relatively common concepts are perceived as new information.

I get it, really, I do. Everything is new at some time. But there’s a recurring question that emerges for me around when some of this information, these questions and these concepts should be ‘new’. And why aren’t more people finding their way to these sources and ideas sooner? 

It seems to me that we are content to learn enough to get things done. But in settling for this level of enquiry, are we lacking a level of intellectual curiosity in fundraising? 

Of course, this is a generalisation and grossly unfair to any number of insatiably curious folk in this vocation. But there is a undoubtedly a case for asking this question, since there are many issues that are crying out for more and different thinking. 

Retention is a major issue. Donor experience doesn’t seem to be a priority. We are still measuring cost of fundraising. Turnover remains a huge concern. Boards and executives remain a source of angst. What’s changing? How are we addressing these and other challenges? Where is the thought leadership? The curiosity to shape a different reality, a different conversation?

Why is there a lack of intellectual curiosity in fundraising?

Perhaps one reason for apparent lack of intellectual curiosity in fundraising comes back to this idea of doing fundraising. In our busyness of doing are we devoting enough time to thinking and to exploring ideas?

Is this intense focus on doing, and the busyness it creates, a result of the simplistic preoccupation with costs and the starvation cycle we can find ourselves in because of this? Does this churn erode the appetite and scope to think and learn?

Are the structures for learning and thought leadership in fundraising too organic – too ad hoc or unformed to give reasonable guidance? Is it too hard to find your way to knowledge and relevant content? Are we disciplined enough to gather around the common tenets of a profession and invest in the steps we need to take to be more connected, more rigorous, more recognised?

Are we still inclined to accept the conventional wisdom of the eminent without seeking the evidence to either agree with or contest that which is presented to us?

Is the focus on outputs continuing to divert us from the meaningful conversation around outcomes and impacts?

Do we value knowledge and deeper enquiry? Do we have the time and encouragement to pursue it? Are we being supported by employers and a commitment to capacity building? Is there a will to invest in learning and building knowledge? Are we prepared to invest in our own career and devote time and energy to enquiry?

Where do the answers lie? Who takes the lead on this? Where does the responsibility for change sit?

“Are fundraisers inclined to accept the conventional wisdom of the eminent without seeking the evidence to either agree with or contest that which is presented to them?”

Some employers will encourage learning and knowledge related to the job you do. Some will even ask for it. And some will pay for it too. However, this is often contingent on what the demonstrated return from that learning will be. Fundraisers being asked “how are you going to justify the cost of training in programme return?”. Understandable to a point, but it really is the wrong question. It ends up stifling curiosity!

Individuals will pursue learning, whether that is sector professional education, vocational and tertiary education, attending conferences, seminars and webinars, or just reading the literature – research, journals, articles and blogs. But you don’t have to do any of this. Beyond employer requirements, if they exist, it’s up to the individual.

Unless of course you hold practice certification. Then you are obliged to do some or all these things. While that’s a great platform for professional identity it doesn’t guarantee curiosity.

So here is the big question. Are we curious enough in fundraising? Intellectually curious rather than knowing enough to get the job done.

Is this a question for us to take on? Is it a fair critique or an élitist position? Do we even have the time, energy and support to bother when there is so much to be done with so few resources? Or is this a call on our personal leadership commitment and will in shaping a timely change in our vocation? 

Perhaps the question answers itself? If we start by answering the simple question about our intellectual curiosity in fundraising, we may have just taken the most important first step?

  • Nigel Harris, MBA CFRE GAICD, is chief executive of Mater Foundation in Brisbane, Australia, a past chair and fellow of the Fundraising Institute of Australia and a member of the Rogare board. 

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